“Regardless of what’s happened to me and what I’ve gone through, I’m still Leilani. Yes, this experience has changed me, but the core of who I am is there.”
Leilani is an Indigenous CHamoru* and Kānaka Maoli woman from Guam, an activist, a life-long writer, and a survivor of sexual violence.
She was sexually assaulted on her second day of college by her dorm neighbor. At first she did not feel comfortable thinking of what happened to her as sexual assault and felt obligated to maintain a relationship with the person who had done this to her; the sexual violence continued in the form of an abusive relationship over the course of the next year.
“He was my dormitory neighbor. I couldn’t get away from him. No one would listen to me when I told them what was happening. I was horrified.” Though she was able to leave the abusive relationship, the perpetrator stalked her for the next two years.
Leilani hadn’t reported what happened up to that point because she didn’t feel she could acknowledge that it was an abusive relationship. “I had a hard time feeling anger on my own behalf. But when a friend told me about something similar that happened to her, I felt angry for her, which helped me realize how upsetting what happened to me was, too. I knew I needed to start speaking out. And when I did, being able to talk about what happened helped me start to feel whole again.”
She chose to begin her journey of speaking out by reporting the abuse to the school. At the time, she was working in the community safety department on campus, so the person she was supposed to report the abuse to was her boss. “He ignored a lot of my questions about the reporting process and made me feel like I was hysterical and crazy.” After a first investigation into the case, the Title IX process took another two years. “I lost my entire time at college to these procedures.”
Even though she provided witnesses and photos for evidence, campus administration repeatedly told her that they did not believe her. “After two years of being told that I made this all up, it became difficult to continue to believe in myself. I began to feel like maybe it was all my fault.” Leilani felt alone and that she couldn’t trust people in her life anymore. “I started lashing out at friends and family who were trying to help me. I feel terrible about that.”
Because of the abuse and the prolonged, difficult reporting process, Leilani experienced PTSD, depression, anxiety, constant fear, and panic attacks. She has found it healing to surround herself with a community of other Indigenous women who supported her and helped her contextualize what she was feeling within the history of sexual violence toward Indigenous women. Leilani says that she would not have been able to get through what happened without reconnecting with her identity as an Indigenous woman.
“This community of women understood my experience so deeply and personally. Indigenous women face rates of sexual violence well above the national average, and you don’t hear many people talking about the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic.”
She has also found tremendous healing through reconnecting to other aspects of her culture. “In Pasifika culture there is a concept called talanoa, which means binding together through sharing. It’s a practice of finding language to describe your experience and reconnecting to your community. This practice was integral to my healing; it showed me that I was capable of shaping my own narrative and identity. I am an active participant in my own story.”
Another crucial part of Leilani’s healing process has been activism. For the last several years she has worked on drafting laws and collaborated with congressional representatives about how best to protect campus sexual assault survivors to help ensure that others don’t have to go through what she did.
She has also found a lot of healing in connecting with support specialists on the National Sexual Assault Hotline—especially when she knows she has an urgent need and nowhere else to turn.
Leilani originally planned on majoring in biology, but after experiencing sexual violence and the difficulty of the reporting process, her mission became to learn skills that would help with her advocacy work for other survivors. She recently graduated from college with a degree in political science.
This year she testified in front of the United Nations to bring attention to violence targeting Indigenous women and reduce sexual violence against these communities. She currently works as a writer and isn’t planning on stopping her advocacy work any time soon.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Through all of this, it’s been important for me to remind myself to keep writing, to keep doing something I love. I’m taking control of my own narrative.”
*CHamoru was not originally a written language so the spellings of many words vary, especially since the use of the language has been repeatedly banned at different points in the Marianas’ history. In the last 50 years, there has been a revived effort to standardize the orthography. Last November, the Commission on the CHamoru Language and the Teaching of the History and Culture of the Indigenous People of Guam, or I Kumisión i Fino’ CHamoru yan i Fina’nå’guen i Historia yan Lina’la’ i Taotao Tåno’, announced the official spelling of “CHamoru” to honor the CHamoru spelling of the word, including singular CHamoru letters like “CH.”